The functionality of art is not always the first thing brought to mind when thinking about art. Art has typically been viewed as something to be observed with the aesthetic results forming the basis of any appreciation, however decorative art bypasses the simplicity of this argument. Decorative art is defined as “any of those arts that are concerned with the design and decoration of objects that are chiefly prized for their utility, rather than for their purely aesthetic qualities” and comes in a vast array of different formats including ceramic art, jewelry, woodwork, metalwork, wallpaper, glassware, and textile arts amongst many others. The lax definition enables a whole host of art forms to fall under this category.

The functionality of these art forms is the principal aspect that groups them together; jewelry can be worn, ceramics can be drunk from, woodwork can be sat on or used as storage or to display other objects, wallpaper can be pasted onto walls… Although the aesthetic qualities that also define decorative arts must not be overlooked; they are an integral aspect of decorative art.

The historical beginning of decorative art cannot be pinpointed to one precise moment as ornately decorated and functional objects gradually integrated craftsmanship; weapons became more opulent, jewels more extravagant. From the Egyptian, Greek and Roman times, as well as other civilizations of antiquity, to more modern creations by the likes of Émile Gallé, Tiffany, and Koloman Moser, decorative art has never ceased developing and evolving.

More recently decorative art has been closely linked with the English Arts and Crafts movement of the 19th century said to have been inspired by William Morris and his contemporaries. A master of decorative art and indeed within the Arts and Crafts Movement, Morris, demonstrated his versatility through his various endeavours. He was a textile designer, weaver, embroider, calligrapher, writer, translator, socialist activist and protector of historical buildings. Although not all of his exploits correspond to decorative art, he made a lasting impact with designs still used to this day.

What Morris demonstrates is that art and in turn, decorative art, is in a way limitless, it spans across a whole host of different mediums but has no barriers. There are no boundaries to the form of the art, whether an ornate pair of earrings or a hand carved wooden stool, they can both be classified as the same genre. There are no restrictions to the many forms an object can take, as long as it complies with the functionality or the aesthetic requisites to be deemed decorative art.

Decorative art has changed dramatically since its emergence as many of these art pieces are now on display in museums across the word, having surrendered their intended functionality. Made or built to be used and enjoyed, the fate of these objects now literally lies next to another object in a glass case. Of course there is a reason for the preservation of these objects, however would it not be nice to occasionally use them for the purposes they were built for, use them for their function?

It is thought that some things are too beautiful to be used, like one’s Sunday best attire, or your grandmother’s family heirloom emerald ring that you don’t want to lose or is too beautiful to wear with your casual day-to-day clothes. “Modern decorative art in all its forms is to be understood as a living reality.” However if the objects, the works of art, are not “living”, what is their purpose? This is specifically true for smaller objects or furniture and does not correspond to buildings or architecture that fall into this genre. For example, the Empire State Building, designed by William F. Lamb, is a decorative art piece in itself, and was without a doubt made to be functional and used on a day-to-day basis, allowing for a continuous appreciation of the building even if it adheres to the principle of “form follows function”.

Interestingly enough, the distinction made between decorative and the fine arts, comprising of art forms such as painting and sculpture, is more of a modern distinction. This calls into question the actual functionality of some of the more modern decorative art pieces, have they merely been created with the purpose of producing an aesthetic-induced pleasure and having a feigned perceived functionality?

The one drawback of this argument is the obvious, decorative art pieces are usually made in singular exemplars; therefore their functionality cannot be shared. This is where museums and art books become an excellent replacement way to appreciate decorative art not available to be used for the function for which it was created. Although, what if by going on show in a museum, an object of decorative art acquires a new function?

The world of today has greatly changed in regards to the appreciation and functionality of art. In the fast paced life that encompasses us, there is little time for appreciation. As one of the small pleasures in life, art does not always benefit from the merit it deserves. The use of decorative art in every-day life, the aesthetically pleasing and functional art, could become one of the only manners in which we will be able to admire opulent pieces or art. The functionality of some decorative art could persevere. Perhaps to help you could start wearing a 19th century crown on your daily commute...

Text by Elizabeth Thompson


[1] Britannica decorative-art
[2] Definitions decorative art
[3] Hans Nadelhoffer, Cartier, 2007, Chronicle Books LLC.

Charles, V., 1000 Masterpieces of Decorative Art, Parkstone Press International, 2014.
Davies, s., Functional and Procedural Definitions of Art, Journal of Aesthetic Education Vol. 24, No. 2 (Summer, 1990), pp. 99-106 Published by: University of Illinois Press
Greenough, H., Form and Function: Remarks on Art, edited by Harold A. Small, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1947.
Nadelhoffer, H., Cartier, Chronicle Books LLC, 2007. Smith, R., How Decorative Arts Evolved and Became a Social Movement, The New York Times, 2005